Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What is a Roshi?

The Japanese term roshi means “old (i.e., venerable) teacher.” It is the title of the spiritual master in Zen monasteries. Monks admitted to the Zen life must submit themselves entirely to the direction of the Roshi, however harsh and unrelenting his discipline may seem. Regular activities in which Roshi and monks encounter each other include the master’s instructions to the group and monks’ individual sessions in the Roshi’s room. A Roshi’s instructions (teisho, koza) take place in a lecture hall. Accompanied by two assistant monks, the Roshi burns incense before the Buddha image. After the monks recite sacred texts, the Roshi assumes his teaching chair and teaches for about an hour, using short narratives and parables and concluding with a specific case of the issue he has been discussing. The monks are left to ponder the matter in depth. During the week-long retreats called Dai-sesshin ([the great] “collecting thoughts”) that occur monthly during the traditional rainy season seclusion, the Roshi gives instructions daily. Ordinarily, individual monks will have the opportunity for voluntary individual sessions with the Roshi at regular intervals during the course of daily order. But during the Dai-sesshin they will each see him briefly four times daily to discuss their koan or their progress in meditation. These sessions, called sanzen, are not a simple chat. There is no small talk with the Roshi. In a few choice words, the monk signals to the teacher whether he is making genuine progress. If he talks nonsense, the Roshi will toss him out unceremoniously with an admonition to get serious. One of Zen’s greatest teachers, Dogen (1200-53), described the ideal roshi as able to transmit the dharma, warm but able to be harsh when necessary, standing in the Buddha’s place in educating, humble enough to ask for his monks’ forgiveness, uninterested in fame or prestige, and concerned above all with simplicity. When it seems appropriate the monk and the Roshi might even share a hearty laugh.


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